A confounding 3D experiment about loss and the way we look at images

To talk about PROTOTYPE—one of the most visceral and intriguing movies I’ve seen this year—it’s important to mention what PROTOTYPE is not. There are no characters or dialogue, and little plot to hold onto. Eventually, even the images give way to abstraction and become unrecognizable. Why, then, see the movie? Because PROTOTYPE plays with vision in new and exciting ways. Because the emotions it wades through are poignant and timely, drawn from the aftermath of an environmental disaster—and because the movie is a fantastic trip.

PROTOTYPE is a 3D experiment about the aftermath of the 1900 Galveston Hurricane, seen through a light science fiction frame. The movie opens with found images of the hurricane’s destruction. They’re static, yet they float away from the screen. The originals are stereograms themselves—early 3D images which were apparently a turn of the century bourgeois amusement.

However, the movie hurries away from these documents. Conventional shots in colour serve as a bridge between the past and an exploration of what could have been the future. Water fills the screen as the camera descends alongside a flat curve of waves, which at first glance seems to be a waterfall. But, the curve never ends and the water comes out of the frame and hangs over the audience. This kind of 3D is new; a technique that moves beyond the ornamental use of contemporary blockbusters, towards something moving and surprising. It feels like a slow-motion free-fall.

PROTOTYPE knows when to transition, and cuts from the water to a static shot of television screens. There are five of them, each with an empty blue frame that is either smaller or larger, depending on where they are placed within the screen. The sets show mundane videos and are obscure rather than evocative. But when PROTOTYPE cuts, the sets are re-arranged so that some images are half-visible while others push out into the audience. This static movement becomes a kind of dance. The television sets evoke a sense of surveillance, yet also feel like creations—there is nothing besides them in the empty space.

The final segment nears complete abstraction as image-negatives are slowed and plastered, making indecipherable shapes flicker in all three dimensions. It feels the least cognitive, but the most physiologically reactive; I was lost in the rhythm of the cuts, never feeling the need to exactly decipher these shapes. As the waves of the first segment return, now under the blanket of television flicker, they bring PROTOTYPE back to reality.

There’s plenty to be unpacked, even as the movie opens to individual experience. I can speak to the recurring interest in how we—as cultural and biological beings—see, specifically in the context of a disaster. There are a couple reminders throughout the movie of how a stereoscopic image works; a few shots change colour if you close one of your eyes. The abundance of surfaces—waves, screens, and layers—end up highlighting the artificiality of the projected images themselves. If the development towards abstractions seems strange, it also comes at the emotional climax of the film, allowing a sense of loss in the wake of the hurricane to move about freely. There’s a natural balance between this conclusion and the static photographs that began the movie.

Now that TIFF’s over, it may be more difficult to see PROTOTYPE. However, we’re lucky that the director, Blake Williams, is a Toronto local—hopefully there will be more screenings in the near future. To those that might have tuned out as soon as they read “experiment,” don’t be intimidated; PROTOTYPE is a striking piece of art, but still approachable. Treat it like a trip and let yourself get lost. There’s no need to feel guilty about your wavering focus, since everyone checks out for a minute—or ten. As Williams said before the TIFF premiere: give it patience.